The vision for this project was three-fold. Firstly, it sought first-hand insights into secondary school pupils’ perceptions of growth mindset. This required strong pupil participation to understand their thoughts and feelings across different topics. Secondly, the study aimed to ensure that pupils understood the concept of adopting a growth mindset. This meant increasing pupil awareness and engagement with key areas, such as ‘fixed versus growth mindset.’ In turn, this should improve pupils confidence and resilience in class for the benefit of their learning. Lastly, pupils’ attitudes and efforts across their curriculum were evaluated to determine if growth mindset could influence attainment and academic performance.
Pupils’ perceptions of growth mindset
Gaining a first-hand account of pupils’ perceptions of growth mindset, was the first aim of the project. With a dearth of research utilising pupil voice, this study was able to offer a unique insight into the thoughts, feelings and ideas of pupils. Methods adopted meant that the young people involved felt comfortable and confident to share their educational experiences and thoughts on growth mindset. Thus, we were able to determine compelling commonalities and differences, to build trust, break down the adult-child power imbalance and embark on a shared learning journey.
Understanding growth mindset
The project set out to empower young people with critical knowledge and understanding of growth mindset, to benefit their learning in the classroom and beyond. Simply telling pupils about growth mindset would not be sufficient for pupils to fully understand its importance. Instead, a programme of work was designed where pupils completed a range of activities and interacted with key content. This offered a rich experience for young people, backed up with deep discussions and the use of MTV ‘thinking routines’ allowing them to make real-life links to their own situations.
Evaluate changes in attitude, effort and behaviour
The project involved engaging in professional dialogue with colleagues to evaluate any changes to pupils’ attitudes, effort and behaviour in relation to their learning. The data gathered offered some insight into the extent that growth mindset can impact academic performance. Future research would benefit from more in-depth analysis of summative assessment scores, homework tasks etc to present much clearer and more accurate evidence.
Prior to project commencement, the timeline and potential disruptions were discussed with the Head Teacher, and solutions were agreed. SMT was notified of the timeline and ongoing updates were provided. The initial stages were critical for the overall success of the project. A later starting date, than originally anticipated, was selected because it would:
This all allowed for an uninterrupted eight-week phase between school holidays and December, mirroring previous timelines for research on targeted interventions using growth mindset (Baker, 2017). All work was then completed as expected by the project end-date.
All lessons were planned ahead of the project start date. However, teaching episodes and several learning activities were refined based upon on-going reflection. One significant change was altering the order in which the learning activities were delivered, responding to discussions with leaners and positive engagement in certain areas.
The study originally involved fourteen pupils aged 13-14 years (12 males; 2 females). One female pupil withdrew voluntarily, and we tried to ensure this did not hinder inclusion for the remaining pupils. Mid-way through, the other female pupil transferred to a different secondary school. This meant that the final analysis would not have any data for female participants, as the timescale and scope of the project did not allow for subsequent inclusion of new female pupils.
In the interviews held, pupils were able to discuss general ideas surrounding a ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindset. Pupils’ views initially reflected the empirical literature, where intelligence is either viewed as a fixed unchanging ‘entity’ or something that can be developed (incremental beliefs) (Da Castella, 2015). At the outset, there was a near-universal acceptance among the pupils that intelligence related directly to “how smart you are” (Pupil 7). The pupils expressed uncertainty about the possibility of improving intelligence, which was seen as a static trait. However, after the project this perspective changed, and pupils espoused ideology associated with the adoption of a growth mindset:
At the outset:
“Some folks are good at sports some people are not good.” (Pupil 1)
“Everyone is different. Some can… some can’t.” (Pupil 6)
After the project:
“A lot of people can change how smart they are. People in Maths make progress and get moved up classes” (Pupil 7)
“More time, effort you put into it the better you will become, you can always progress.” (Pupil 5)
The project also aimed to raise pupils understanding and awareness of the impact of both types of mindset. Evidence suggests that pupils who believe intelligence is malleable and can change with effort, feel as though they have more control and positive emotions towards their learning (Boaler, 2013; King, McInerney, & Watkins, 2012). Both prior to, and more notably after the study, participants were able to highlight key traits they felt were critical to improving and increasing intelligence – namely hard work, effort and practice - and the complexity of doing this:
“I’m rubbish at English and can’t spell or anything but now I am a bit better because I worked hard and tried stuff.” (Pupil 5)
“If they practice all the time in primary school then they can get good.” (Pupil 3)
“No matter your intelligence. Einstein’s work on nuclear…he had to try really hard on that.” (Pupil 6).
“There is a 16-year-old boy close to here who played for Kilmarnock aged six and he has just signed for Manchester City. He wasn’t born with it, he had to train for it.” (Pupil 7)
“Most of the smart people in the world are only considered smart because of what they have done. They would have to have worked hard to do those things.” (Pupil 10)
Important in establishing a growth mindset is the ability to embrace mistakes. The project highlighted that celebrating mistakes was an essential part of learning. Pupils were able to deepen their understanding of this through focused learning activities. Post-project focus groups show the change in perceptions of mistakes and an understanding of what might stop pupils embracing them:
“If you don’t take in your mistake then you won’t improve. If you do then you can improve. The harder you work then the harder you learn. It takes steep learning and hard work.” (Pupil 7).
“Nobody is bad at anything really… you have just got to make mistakes.” (Pupil 6)
“Laziness and they don’t have any self-esteem.” (Pupil 2)
“Self-esteem towards trying.” (Pupil 1)
“If you are not good at something it is your self-esteem that stops you getting better.” (Pupil 11)
The results of the current study reflect the evidence found by Da Castella and Bryne (2015:22) that “knowing change is possible is not the same as believing personally in one’s ability to change”. Perhaps if educators can remove negativity surrounding a ‘wrong’ answer then pupils can begin to accept that it is okay to make mistakes. Analysis of teacher’s feedback on pupils’ attitudes and efforts (using the Leuven’s Scale of Active Engagement in Learning) provide compelling insight in support of this concept. Despite the results above, the project did not translate into any significant changes within the classroom or in summative scores. Future investigation tracking the engagement of pupils alongside assessments across a calendar year, could enable more accurate measurement of the impact of growth mindset on academic performance. It would also be helpful to focus on improving and monitoring self-efficacy within young people, given that it is the beliefs students’ hold about themselves and their ability to improve that is most predictive of their willingness to embrace opportunities for learning (Blackwell, Trzesniewski & Dweck, 2007; Da Castella and Bryne, 2015).
A number or resources where used to help evaluate the project as follows:
The results of the project - the PASS Survey and the Mindset Quiz responses pre and post the project - can be also be found here.
The project sought to engage with teachers to better understand the impact that the growth mindset intervention was having on overall attitudes, effort and behaviour in relation to pupil’s learning. Colleagues provided valuable feedback, showing an increase in confidence in classroom activities for pupils, such as suggesting answers in class and asking for additional help where required. Informal discussions also revealed that staff could see that some pupils were more focussed and determined to succeed at learning tasks, especially in relation to new topics and ideas. Some pupils were not felt to have shown any improvement in relation to their effort or attitudes, but nor did they regress towards more undesirable behaviours.
Future research might seek more evidence from teaching and support staff, as opposed to focusing more on pupil feedback as with this study. This would allow an opportunity to examine achievement scores of a greater number of students and make more robust judgements on the impact of growth mindset intervention.
There are several next steps planned, following the project. The School Improvement Plan (SIP) has prioritised developing staff knowledge of growth mindset and embedding it in their teaching, over the next few years. A working group will be formed to take forward a whole school approach and support staff to upskill. Future research will also be welcomed to examine the extent to which growth mindset intervention can impact on summative achievement scores of pupils, especially for those young people who are disengaged and require greater motivation and self-efficacy.